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Jason Stokes of Futurepoly Training Studio Talks Game Development and Networking in the Industry Today

Written by Bonnie Boglioli...January 10, 2012
Did You Know.....Full Sail University offers online degree programs in computer animation, game art, and game design? Learn more about Full Sail University's online programs.
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Here at AnimationCareerReview, we love hearing about new or unique animation courses from our readers. One such program that was recently brought to our attention is Futurepoly, a digital arts training studio that is tailored to video game development. Founded by Jason Stokes, a concept artist from an acclaimed Seattle game studio, the training studio boasts an enviable list of artist instructors who address common needs of both the industry and aspiring game artists alike. 

Futurepoly works out of two studio campuses in the gaming mecca of the Greater Seattle area. Though not accredited, the courses offered seek to impart the necessary skills and a healthy dose of networking. Did we mention they are reasonably priced and made to work around your schedule, as well? Stokes graciously took time out of his busy schedule for a Q&A with us about Futurepoly, animating in the video game world and what gives students a competitive edge in an ambitious industry.

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ACR:  Jason, thanks for answering some questions today! Prior to founding Futurepoly, you worked at the award-winning ArenaNet studio on several Guild Wars titles as a Concept Artist. What was your impetus to pivot your career and start a digital arts training studio?

JS:  I remember on multiple occasions we would have young artists come in for a tour (at ArenaNet) and ask us what school we would recommend and how to get in the industry. At the time, I didn’t have a clear answer for them because a lot of the local schools were extremely over-priced and lacking a curriculum that focused on Video Game Art. I felt bad for not having a clear answer and after talking with colleagues it seemed like creating an art school taught by working professionals was the only real answer.

ACR: What type of student did you have in mind when you began Futurepoly?

JS:  Our ideal student is intelligent, hardworking, personable and competitive. I strongly believe that for these students our program is a perfect fit. If you’re hardworking enough to get through the assignments, intelligent enough to trouble-shoot technical problems, competitive enough to make sure your work is on par or better than other students, and personable enough for the instructors to recommend you, then it is a no-brainer. HIRE THIS PERSON! If that sounds too demanding for some then the gaming industry is probably not the right fit for them.

ACR:  On that note, the video game industry is so very competitive. Does Futurepoly guide students along so that they have a competitive edge in the job market?

JS:  The whole goal of Futurepoly is to train students in a professional workflow. That doesn’t mean much on a resume so that’s why we focus more on the student’s portfolio. I believe in having a clean simple portfolio that shows off the exact skills the studio you want to work for needs. Sometimes this takes a good amount of research but lucky for us gamers, research can be fun. If you want to work on an Assassins’ Creed game as an environment artist then you better have an environment in your portfolio that fits in with their style. An employer wants to find talent and plug them in without much ramp up.

ACR:  Video game art must be both aesthetic and functional, relying a broad range of techniques. What’s more, things are constantly changing. How do you teach to the diverse needs of the industry?

JS:  We require our instructors to actively work in the games industry to ensure that the curriculum is up to date with industry standards. There is no reason to teach an older, out of date workflow. I remember at ArenaNet we were modeling rocks straight in 3DS-Max for years and then we switched over to Z-brush and It was a night and day quality improvement. The very next week I threw out the old Rock curriculum because it was no longer relevant (for students).

ACR:  You have assembled a virtual who’s who of the gaming industry to instruct students including the venerable visionary art director Daniel Dociu (the creative force behind Guild Wars 2 among many others). How important is the insight that these distinguished artists impart to your students?

JS:  I will be the first to admit that without the help of the instructors and workshop guests, Futurepoly wouldn’t even exist. Just having instructors that know how to get a job in the industry is priceless. It takes all the guess work out of learning. I remember when I was in art school I had an animation class where we spent hours entering exact numeric expressions to mathematically animate a pair of legs. When I asked “How do I add the arms?” the instructor told us he didn’t know and suggested attaching a soup can as a torso. The worst part was there were actually people that included that “crappy robot soup can” walking around in their portfolio. That’s why the insight from professional instructors is invaluable.

ACR: As a game artist yourself, how did you learn to translate a concept into a CG animation, as you frequently were tasked with doing for Daniel Dociu at ArenaNet?

JS:  My work at ArenaNet focused on building and establishing the looks of the cities and environments but the same lessons apply to animation. Use reference for everything, even if you think you know what a wood plank looks like, or how a person walks. Along with Daniel’s epic concepts he would also give me a reference folder that contained all of the images he used as inspiration. Those folders ended up helping just as much as the concept because it gave me a glimpse into what kinds of details Daniel was looking for.

ACR:  In the CG gaming world, is it necessary to possess drawing skills or can you get by without them?

JS:  Developing your drawing and painting skills can be a lifelong journey of exploration and observation. I’ve grown up with a pencil in hand so for a long time I thought it was the most important prerequisite in order to get your foot in the door. The most common skill that all professionals have is a critical eye. If you can look at your own work and realize what improvements need to be made than that is far more valuable than a life drawing section in your portfolio. The ironic thing is in order to develop that critical eye, life drawing is arguably the best exercise.

ACR: Futurepoly’s studio is in arguably the gaming mecca of the world, just outside of Seattle. Does location have its advantages for students?

JS:  One of the most important advantages is networking. If a student is excelling on all of the assignments and an instructor knows of an opening at Bungie, Valve, Arena Net, Microsoft, etc., it becomes a natural step to recommend that student. Since all of our instructors work at those companies, it’s an instant in. The flip side of that coin is that if you are a total weirdo and you don’t work well with anyone, then our school can actually hurt your chances of employment. That might seem like a negative thing to put out there, but I think it’s very important for people to be mindful of networking and having a professional attitude.

ACR: Are there any software or hardware requirements for students?

JS:  Our two campuses provide all the necessary software and most programs now offer free student versions for home use. We teach 3D- Studio max, Maya, Z-brush, UDK, and Photoshop as our main programs, but also get into more specific programs as they pertain to different lessons.

ACR: And for students outside of the Seattle area, do you offer online courses?

JS:  Yes, we are currently developing a new online course curriculum that will be announced this summer. I’m really excited about some of the ideas we’ve been talking about.

ACR:  Lastly, any words of advice for aspiring game animators to stay ahead of the curve?

JS:  I imagine the gaming industry is a runaway train heading to an unknown destination. The longer you hesitate to board the train the further it gets away from you. I say just hop on that sucker and karate chop your way to the front. The point is to do whatever you can to get your foot in the door and worry about specific career goals later. Most of the concept artists I’ve worked with started at the bottom painting little dirt textures and making grass clumps.

ACR:  Jason, it’s been a pleasure learning about Futurepoly. Thanks!

For additional information on Futurepoly’s course offerings, visit their website.

Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.